Is anyone “shocked, shocked,” as the prefect in “Casablanca” might say, that some people are calling the first project to come out of Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company’s deal with Netflix (gasp!) political?
Yet, that’s how some of the headlines greeted the streaming of the documentary “American Factory,” the first release by the Obamas’ company Higher Ground Productions in their deal announced last year with Netflix to produce a slate of series, movies and documentaries.
“The Obamas’ First Big Anti-Trump Statement of 2020,” roared a Politico headline a day before streaming began Wednesday.
“Obamas aren’t done with politics just yet,” said a Washington Post headline, “if their new Netflix film is any indication.”
“Obamas’ debut Netflix documentary slammed as ‘lefty propaganda,’ an attack on Trump,” blared the Fox News website. It quoted such authorities as Dan Gainor, vice president of the conservative Media Research Center, who called the nearly two-hour film “lefty propaganda” and a “hit job documentary on Trump,” even though the movie doesn’t even mention Trump’s name.
In this case, politics is in the eye of the beholder. The movie doesn’t mention Trump, but it does take a deep dive into one of Trump’s favorite campaign themes, the disappearance of factory jobs across the industrial Midwest, the “American carnage” left behind.
“American Factory,” which the Obamas’ company picked up after it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, takes a deep dive into an effort by Shanghai-based Fuyao Glass to revive a former General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio.
Yellow Springs, Ohio, filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who documented the plant’s closing in their Oscar-nominated short “The Last Truck,” followed three years in the lives of the factory’s workers and new owners, who hired more than 1,000 Americans to work alongside and be trained by several hundred Chinese workers. The result, as with many businesses, is a mixed picture of success and setbacks.
After the heartbreak of losing the GM plant jobs, the new company’s employees are excited, at first.
But they soon find themselves struggling to get by on less than half of their former hourly pay.
We see American and Chinese employees develop new, heartwarming friendships and working partnerships, but we also witness awkward clashes between vastly different social and business cultures.
A Chinese supervisor advises Chinese workers in Mandarin to be patient with the Americans and their slower, more “casual” work ethic. He reminds his countrymen that “We’re better than them.”
At the same time, American employees complain that their Chinese supervisors can be too demanding, and too casual toward workplace safety and working hours.
Fundamentally, we see differences in how the two cultures view the nature of work and worker rights.
An effort to organize a unit of the the United Auto Workers sets off a bitter battle in which the company’s chief executive threatens to shut down the factory. The employees have since voted to reject the union, according to the Dayton Daily News.
This story touched me personally. I was born in Dayton, grew up in nearby Middletown and began my journalism career covering Dayton news as an intern for a local newspaper.
But things have changed, too much for the worse, in Ohio’s factory towns, so much so that I was more shocked than I should have been by presidential candidate Trump’s victories in the state and across other critical industrial swing states – victories that put him over the top in the Electoral College.
I revisit my hometown region with new eyes now. Back when I was working my way through college in a local steel mill, jobs were something my classmates and I almost took for granted. If all else fails, youngsters would say, I can always work at (fill in the blank with a local factory that’s now gone or taken over by robots).
Even in the 1960s and ’70s, it was common wisdom that American factory jobs were drying up amid international competition. I don’t think anybody expected the collapse to come so fast.
“American Factory” tries mightily to avoid taking sides or political positions and that’s only fair. The collapse occurred under the presidencies of both parties. Trump, whether by accident or design, knew how to touch the right buttons of outrage in blue collar and struggling middle-class Ohio, all wrapped up in the conservative notion that we can “Make America Great Again.”
We all should want America to do a better job of providing ways for Americans to take care of their families. But the remedies are too complex and nuanced to be contained in a bumper sticker.
One movie can’t provide all of the answers, either, but “American Factory” helps us to better understand the problems.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.